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3.2 Some alternative types of examinations

There are a number of innovative alternatives to the standard closed book examination.

Open Book Examinations

Open book examinations vary by the amount of material the assessor permits students to take into the exam room. In some cases, there are no limits. The students are free to take whatever materials they wish into the room. In other open book exams, the assessor places certain restrictions. Some examples include specified papers, books and limits on the quantity of notes i.e. one A4 sheet of notes.

One advantage with using this type of format is that it gives students more time to demonstrate higher order thinking skills as opposed to simple recall of basic information. It may also effectively signal that deeper learning is required to achieve high grades.

One potential disadvantage is the possibility it leads to less revision and exam preparation as some students overestimate how much they can effectively utilise books and notes in the exam. 

Open Examinations

There are two broad categories of open examination.

  1. The assessor gives students a task to complete in a much shorter time-period than coursework i.e. overnight or within a couple of days.
  2. The assessor gives the student the assessment topic/questions and/or specific material (i.e. a case study/journal articles) to read and research before the exam. After a period for research/revision, students have to answer questions under normal exam conditions. If tutors provide detailed guidance for a closed book examination, there is a danger it effectively becomes this type of open examination but with lower expectations.

Open examinations can be useful if it is difficult to assess the module’s learning outcomes in time-constrained conditions. For example, the ability to synthesise information from a wide range of academic sources. It is very important to communicate the length of time you expect students to spend on the preparation activities.

Case study 3.2.1: An example of an open examination

The tutor gave the following assessment instructions to students on an MSc Microeconomics module.

Select any firm of your choice. Discuss the microeconomic factors that you think impact on the firm’s decision-making. Highlight any challenges the firm currently faces and how microeconomics helps us understand these challenges and possible strategies the firm could adopt to overcome them.

You must include relevant diagrams and/or mathematics in your answer. You cannot bring any notes or texts to the exam. However, if you have collected firm and industry relevant data in the form of tables or plots, these can be brought to the exam, discussed and submitted along with your test answer.

This format aimed to achieve a number of objectives. First, students needed to demonstrate a good understanding of the technical content of the module. Second, they had to ask themselves, on a weekly basis, how the material they were learning could provide insights into real firms and consumers’ decision-making. Finally, they had the challenge of drawing together information on factors such as market share, pricing strategies and profitability whilst using microeconomic theory to provide insights.

Students were encouraged to show the tutor some of the materials they were planning to use to check they were suitable/appropriate. They were also advised to select a firm not being analysed by fellow students. This meant they could work collaboratively with their peers while confident that their exam answers would be very different from one another.

A number of exam scripts contained very high quality work i.e. demonstrating technical knowledge while producing detailed background research into a selected firm.